The hyperloop, a high-speed transportation system conceived by Elon Musk (of Tesla and SpaceX), broke a record during a December 2017 speed test. The Virgin Group’s Hyperloop One hit 240 mph, beating out the 220 MPH that Musk’s Tesla-branded pod hit in August. Both of these rates still fall well below the desired maximum speed of more than 700 mph, which is due in large part to the fact that the systems are not yet built to scale.
In a 2013 white paper, Musk described his vision for the hyperloop, a pair of concrete tubes stretching from San Francisco to Los Angeles that would carry passengers in high-speed pods. The trip that usually takes about six hours one-way would be shortened to about 35 minutes.
The pods would be propelled by magnetic accelerators and held aloft in a near-vacuum, frictionless state. The maintenance of an airlock system allows for the successful and safe transference of passengers and cargo between varying states of air pressure. Similar “vacuum train” designs were also proposed in in 1909 by rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard and in 1972 by the RAND Corp., the Hyperloop One website points out. It describes its hyperloop in this way: “A Virgin Hyperloop One pod quickly lifts above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag.”
During the December test, the airlock, electric motor, vacuum, “advanced controls and power electronics, custom magnetic levitation and guidance,” and pod suspension were all successfully tested. Hitting 240 mph was a notable boost to Virgin’s previous record of 192 mph. To reach the desired 700 mph, the team estimates about 1.2 more miles of track will be required. The current 1,620-foot DevLoop test track should allow the Hyperloop One to reach approximately 250 mph, The Verge reports. The Musk track is longer at about 0.75 miles (about 3,960 feet). After setting the August record, Musk posted on Instagram, “May be able get past 500 km/h (about half speed of sound) next month with a few tweaks or maybe tiny pieces … ”
In early September, Amtrak Co-CEO Richard Anderson expressed his uncertainty about the potential for functional hyperloops, telling CNBC, “I don’t think it’s realistic right now. I’m glad there are people like that [who] dream about that,” and, “I‘m sort of focused on bridges and tunnels that are 100 years old that need some real infrastructure investment.”
Virgin Group also announced in December that Co-founder Richard Branson has been named chairman, following the exit of Shervin Pishevar due to allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. It has raised $50 million in investments from Caspian Venture Capital and DP World, which was an essential accomplishment for the company as it faced financial shortfalls. It now has a “very robust financial platform for 2018” and is “working aggressively” to have three production systems in service by 2021.